Motorcyclists revved up for annual Memorial Day trek
The skies might be sunny on Monday morning, but if you’re heading north on Interstate 75 between Tampa and Bushnell, you might hear thunder.
The rumble will be from 400 or so motorcyclists making their annual Memorial Day trek to the Florida National Cemetery in Sumter County to pay tribute to fallen soldiers and sailors who have died on and off the battlefields.
The annual ride is a labor of love for retired Marine Col. Ron “Paladin” Rook, who started the tradition eight years ago with just a few dozen bikers. It has grown each year with more and more motorcycle enthusiasts making the 31-mile trip from the rest area on Interstate 75 near the Hillsborough/Pasco County line, where the group meets.
“It’s extremely awesome,” Rook said. “It’s a beautiful ride.”
The bikers will meet at the rest stop at 9 a.m. Memorial Day and leave at 9:30 sharp for the ceremony in Bushnell, which begins at 11 a.m.
Rook, who is a member of the Tampa Bay Chapter of the Defenders Law Enforcement Motorcycle Club, said groups from as far away as Jacksonville come to ride with the pack. Some are military, some retired military, some law enforcement “and some civilians who just love America.”
They attend the service; some stay to picnic in the sprawling cemetery and park.
The group from Tampa is the largest of several groups making their way to the Florida National Cemetery on Memorial Day, he said.
The Tampa group will have a police escort with flashing lights to keep regular holiday travelers from interfering with the procession.
Rick Karczewski with AmVets in Tampa has gone on Memorial Day bike trips to Bushnell in the past but can’t make it this year.
“It’s something you need to experience,” he said. “Words can’t describe the feeling.”
Bikers make up about six of every 10 people who go to the Bushnell service, he said, coming from all over Central Florida.
The trip means more than just a ride to a cemetery, said Shelly Vail, who works with the Troop Support Alliance in Tampa. She rode up in a support car last year.
“It’s incredible,” she said. “The guys who ride tell me that riding in honor escorts and taking the Memorial Day ride to Bushnell is like church on a motorcycle.”
The group merges with other bikers from all over the state at the bucolic Florida National Cemetery for the ceremony, she said.
“It’s the whole atmosphere up there,” she said. “It’s almost like you can feel the spirit. The whole thing is intense. It’s worth going.
“If you can ride,” she said, “it’s one of those things you’ll never forget.”